After Friday night's close call for John Axford, there was a similar feeling about him that has been there after several of his games this year. He didn't have a clean inning, and the save was made tougher than it needed to be. Reading through these comments, I started to wonder what I normally do in a situation like this. Is this just a case of fan paranoia, or is there something to be seriously concerned about? To figure this out, I decided to dig deep into John Axford's stats for this season and his career.
Let's start with how much Axford is being used. Through 57 games, Axford has made 26 appearances and has pitched 25.1 innings. Projected out to a full season, that would be 74 appearances and 72 IP. The appearances would be a career high, but the innings would be in line with what he's done before. Look below for his career major & minor league stats here.
|2008||26 (14 as starter)||95|
|2007||27 (5 as starter)||63|
Let's actually look at this season's appearances. The perception of very few clean innings is not a wrong one. In those 26 appearances this season, Axford has only had 6 clean appearances, where he did not allow a baserunner. In the 20 appearances that he did allow at least one baserunner, at least one run scored in 7 of those (one game was an unearned run). Also, Axford has allowed the leadoff hitter to reach base in 8 of his 26 appearances. Whenever he comes in, it has definitely resulted in some tense moments this season.
What about his strikeouts and walks? Has he been losing some command here? So far this season, Axford has 34 strikeouts and 13 walks. Project that out and it would be 97 strikeouts and 37 walks this season. That would be right in line with his career average projected out to 162 games. In terms of his strikeout rate, it has slightly increased this season for 12.1 K/9, over 11.8 K/9 last season. His walk rate is also slightly up, it is at 4.6 BB/9 this season, up from 4.2 BB/9. That's not much of an improvement (averages to about 1 more strikeout and walk each 18 innings he pitches), but it's a good sign that the numbers are in line with what he did in the past.
Looking at his performance overall, how has it been? His ERA is up this season, at 3.55 compared to last season's 2.48. That would suggest a worse season than normal, as his career ERA between the majors and minors is 2.87. However, his FIP and xFIP for this season (2.31 and 2.84) are close to his career average (2.26 and 2.95). What does that mean? It means that the ERA jump could be a result of the defense behind him and not his actual performance. In short, the defense has been contributing to some of Axford's problems. I don't think any of us are surprised by that.
Another interesting stat is his BABIP. His career average here is .323. This season, his BABIP is up to .368. Most of us here are aware of BABIP, and that it traditionally regresses closer to the career average as time passes. With the defense behind him, I doubt we see a full regression. However, an improvement may be coming soon, which could result in some less stressful appearances.
As I look through the stats, one red flag does come up here. That is from extra base hits that Axford has allowed. So far this season, his XBH% is at 2.6%, and his X/H% is 12% XBH% represents how many of his plate appearances result in an extra base hit, and X/H% is how many of the hits he allows are extra base hits. Those numbers are low for this season. They are far below his percentages from last year (6.3% XBH, 36% X/H). Maybe that is a good sign? It might be, but the MLB averages would suggest that he's due to regress. Those averages are at 7.6% XBH and 33% X/H. So far this season, of the 26 hits he has given up, only 3 have been for extra bases (1 double, 1 triple, 1 home run). Last season, of the 42 hits he gave up, 15 were for extra bases (13 doubles, 1 triple, 1 home run). The defense in the outfield may be contributing to a smaller number of extra base hits, but at some point more will come. That could be trouble for the Brewers when they do.
There is another concern as well. The home/road splits for Axford are very alarming. Take a look at the below table to see what I'm talking about.
|Slash Line Allow||.226/.273/.258||.308/.429/.410|
The splits are alarming here. How much of that is just struggles with the team? Is it just a small sample size? Axford has had some bad appearances on the road this season. However, I'm not too concerned about it yet. That BABIP is astronomical and should come down. Those stats should improve as time passes.
In conclusion, let's go back to the original question. Should we be concerned about John Axford? Personally, I'm not concerned about him right now. I think there are a few areas to be concerned about, but there's nothing big enough for me to be too worried yet. Also, there are reasons to be hopeful for better future performances. Right now, the closer is one of the smaller concerns the Brewers have right now. Let's deal with other problems first before turning our attention here.
All of the stats I used in this article came from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com.